Fatal Women in the Hard-Boiled Fifties

An extract from Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2001; 2009)


thompsonThe fatal woman poses seductively on hundreds of mid-twentieth century pulp covers, the immodest icon for a period during which sex became one of the major ingredients in the paperback boom. This is the decade that saw the beginning, both in film noir and crime fiction, of a great outpouring of femme fatale plots. Changes taking place in the representation of women had been visible in the pulp magazine illustrations of the previous decade. Black Mask covers which in the 1930s had depicted women as helpless victims were by the 1940s as likely to picture an aggressive dame shooting a .45 or even a submachine gun, or stamping with her spiked heel on a man's hand. In the fifties, this iconography was made still more provocative in the cover art of the host of new paperback originals being published by Gold Medal, Lion and others. The elements of the image are a kind of visual shorthand for perilous attraction and steamy corruption. Sometimes the dangerous woman is simply a sexual predator who tempts and weakens a male protagonist; sometimes she actually imitates male aggression and appropriates male power. On the pulp cover she perhaps holds only a cocktail glass and a smouldering cigarette, or she might hold a gun and might by the end of the narrative have pulled the trigger.

But if you look beyond the boldly clichéd cover art you see a much wider range of representations. Many of the hard-boiled thrillers of the 1950s not only reproduce but rewrite and challenge the stereotypical image of the sexual, aggressive, independent woman. Constrained by the Hays Code, Hollywood tended to package the femme fatale narrative in ways that ensured the defeat of the independent female and the reassertion of male control. The novelists of the time, however, were free to play much more extensively against stereotype. They often, for example, set up plots that initially lead us to judge according to stereotype and then make us reverse our expectations; they establish strong female figures who, though sexual, are admirable and/or indomitable. The literary as opposed to the Hollywood femme fatale is less likely to be repressed, killed or otherwise punished for her strength and transgression.

The tough tart who seems able to survive in a male world better than most men in fact becomes a familiar figure in both American and British pulps of the time. She can be seen in her most caricatured form, for example, in a British gangster novel of the fifties, Yellow Babe, by 'Ace Capelli' (Stephen Frances). Lotus, a Chinese singer, is a 'reigning moll-in-chief' who has lived 'with one gangster lover after another and always the minks that go with them and the emotion growing cold inside her...' When she and her lover are caught by the gang boss (‘Johnny was in a pair of shorts...She wasn't dressed as formally as Johnny'), Johnny is emasculated, but, tough as ever (and with no more use for the unfortunate Johnny), Lotus emerges in one piece, eventually becoming 'a famous girl in her own light'.


The toughness and staying-power of the powerful woman are even more evident in a fifties series of British gangster paperbacks that featured the character of Miss Otis, who happily indulges her proclivities and seems to regret very little. Ben Sarto's (Frank Dubrez Fawcett's) Miss Otis novels started with Miss Otis Comes to Piccadilly in 1946. From a male point of view, they can perhaps be seen as an over-the-top and therefore fear-free indulgence in the 'forbidden' fantasy of the powerful and indestructible female with all her erotic allure intact. In American sensationalist and erotic paperbacks of the same period, there was a distinct market in lesbian fiction and it seems clear that Miss Otis had something of the attraction of a leather-clad dominatrix, the same kind of 'strong woman' appeal to be found in the pulp erotica of the time. The opening description in Miss Otis Throws a Come-Back (1949) captures Mabie Otis in all her glory: nearly six feet tall in her high heels, full-bosomed, posing with a 'cat-like voluptuousness...with an underlying suggestion of strength and cruelty', the silk of her dress stretched tightly over her thigh, 'making the limb look as if tautened for a spring. An experienced dame, you would say'. In this novel, she is in business with an ex-FBI officer who has become an entrepreneur with 'the many bucks any clever cop can get on the side', but who isn't man enough to satisfy the Otis, who longs for a man who can 'ride up rough with her on occasion'. 'The Otis' is a kind of Thatcherite gangster's moll, running her own business and more than a match for the men who try to take her on. This tough broad is the femme fatale given 'hero status', unashamedly sexual, dominant, hard-headed, smart and calculating, manipulative - and hugely popular.


British gangster paperbacks of the fifties were, of course, at the less subtle end of the pulp fiction spectrum. In many of the best American crime novels of the period, the figure of the femme fatale is a much more complex creation – often seen through the eyes of a heavily satirised male protagonist whose own views are presented as warped or even deranged. The effect is to undermine the stereotype, which is revealed as the product of male fantasy, desire and the will to dominate. Some of the most interesting hard-boiled fiction of the time focuses our attention on the male need to control women’s sexuality in order not to be overwhelmed by it. The angle of vision is not unlike that of numerous neo-noir films of more recent decades (for example, Vertigo, Chinatown, The Grifters), in which the female threats posed to a man's welfare or psychological stability are represented as the projection of male anxieties.


The narrator of Gil Brewer’s Nude on Thin Ice (1960), for example, begins by abandoning Betty (‘a forget-yourself machine’) in the hope of acquiring money and Nanette (‘a satisfactory form of entertainment’), but is soon in the arms of Justine, the femme fatale he deserves, ‘an amazing creature’ who ensnares men in ‘the wild tumble of her thick pale-blond hair’. It is entirely appropriate that his punishment at the end is entrapment with a Justine who has ceased to maintain herself as an imitation of male fantasy, instead reverting to the antithesis of the blonde, sylph-like ideal - 'that short fat girl with the oily black hair' (142). By the mid-fifties, methods of ironising misogynistic conceptions of women were becoming well-established in pulp crime novels (other notable examples are Charles Willeford’s High Priest of California, published in 1953, and Harry Whittington’s Web of Murder, which came out in 1958). Unquestionably, though, the two writers most fully identified with this type of satirised protagonist (generally though not invariably a first-person narrator) were Charles Williams and Jim Thompson.


One of Williams’ most gripping pieces of male self-exposure is Hell Hath No Fury (1953), probably better-known as Hot Spot, the title chosen for Dennis Hopper's quite faithful 1990 film adaptation. The descriptions of the femme fatale, Dolores Harshaw, all suggest over-ripe sexuality. With her 'bos'n's vocabulary', her drinking and her vacillation between being kittenish and belligerent, she is a caricature of woman as sexual predator: 'God knows I've always had some sort of affinity for gamey babes, but she was beginning to be a little rough even for me'. Although Dolores can objectively be said to possess many of the attributes of the spider woman, Harry Madox, the narrator, makes judgements of her that are put into perspective by his ready categorising of all the other women he thinks have bedevilled his life ('What was my batting average so far in staying out of trouble when it was baited with that much tramp?'). His own complete amorality and self-interest are revealed throughout to be the actual cause of his troubles, and are abundantly apparent before he has anything to do with Dolores. Like the protagonist of Nude on Thin Ice (or of Whittington’s Web of Murder), he happens upon the femme fatale he deserves: '"We belong together...We need each other. You said I was a tramp; well, did you ever stop to think you're one too?"' Her 'snare' is her knowledge of his guilt, and Williams devises a nicely ironic reworking of the eternal devotion theme: '"You said nobody could ever take my place, and you'd never be able to leave me. I thought that was awful sweet. Don't you?"' It is crucial to the plot both that she is triumphant and that she is, for Harry, a dreadful fate - and it is arguably a weakness in Hopper's film that for Harry to drive away at the end with a Dolores played by Virginia Madsen seems too little like a punishment. In the novel, the grim ironies of the end are made painfully clear: 'I've found my own level again, and I'm living with it'.


In A Touch of Death (also 1953) Williams creates a narrator who, like the protagonist of Hot Spot, claims a certain amount of sympathy. Again, though, we become very aware both of his own uncertainties in judging the femme fatale and of his corrupt and mercenary motives. He not only loses the contest with the femme fatale but ends confined in a lunatic asylum, her schemes having so entirely discredited his narrative of events that he is deemed crazy. The woman, Mrs Madelon Butler, is the classic spider woman. She is also, however, allowed enough latitude, within the narrative of Lee Scarborough, to establish a conceivably sympathetic explanation for her conduct, and, like the femmes fatales in such neo-noir films as Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and Last Seduction (John Dahl, 1994), 'ruthless and amoral' though she is, she has some admirable strengths - intelligence, sophistication, cool determination - and uses these to safeguard her own interests. The narrator's attitudes towards women are established from the outset as blithely exploitative. She asks, "You take women pretty casually, don't you?"' and he replies, '"There's another way?"' His obsession with the money becomes overwhelming, ultimately itself arousing sexual passion, as when Madelon 'stirred the loosened bundle with a caressing slowness...' The effect of her poise and skilful self-fashioning is that the narrator never knows whether she is acting or not, whether she's teasing and mocking him. He feels he has the upper hand and will literally and metaphorically screw her, but she turns the tables by simply walking away with money that he ultimately realises she has been carrying all along. What finally unhinges him and makes him 'wake up screaming' is his uncertainty to the end about what her real intentions were, and we, as readers, are left equally in the dark.


Another Williams femme fatale who resembles the potent women of neo-noir movies is Mrs Cannon in The Big Bite (1957). Like Touch of Death, this is a novel with a mercenary hard man as narrator, himself satirised as he judges the femme fatale, displaying even more obvious male prejudice than Harry Madox and Lee Scarborough. Mrs Cannon, represented as much the more intelligent of the two, not only is able to out-manoeuvre the protagonist but is capable of seeing through to the real implications of the position she is in. Although she is doomed at the end, she takes ample revenge. With considerable poetic justice she leaves the narrator, John Harlan, trapped by his own arrogance and scheming. From their early conversations we see Harlan’s judgements as over-confident and dangerously mistaken. Williams drives the point home by having Mrs Cannon match his macho comments with little parodies of male sexism, as when she puts him down by returning his own insult, telling him, '"Just don't be an egg-head. You're stacked all wrong."' In the end, she sees to it that he receives both the money and an exactly appropriate revenge, rectifying his emotionally barren life by bequeathing him '"the only emotion - besides greed - that I believe you capable of feeling. Fear."' It is a sophisticated torture, allowing him to '"savour [his] emotion to the fullest."' As in Hot Spot and Touch of Death, Williams leaves his protagonist tortured with ironic appropriateness for his greed and stupidity, outmanoeuvred by a woman he has underrated and treated with condescension.


thompsonJim Thompson often exposes the self-deluded ways in which even quite ordinary men (like Roy Dillon in The Grifters) judge the mothers, wives and girl friends in their lives, but when he pushes the characterisation of his protagonists further towards the psychopathic, he creates a sense that stereotypical representations of women are not just reflections of male greed and self-satisfaction but projections of deeply disturbed minds. From 1949 on, with Nothing More Than Murder, Thompson created a succession of off-beat and subversive portraits of psychologically disturbed protagonist-murderers. Nothing More than Murder was followed by The Killer Inside Me (1952), Savage Night (1953), A Hell of a Woman (1954), The Nothing Man (1954), A Swell-Looking Babe (1954) and Pop. 1280 (1964). All but A Swell-Looking Babe are written in the first person, and all use the form for savage satiric exposure. Of these, the novel most fully engaged in dissecting the dementedly misogynistic mind is A Hell of a Woman, in which the narrator is the door-to-door salesman, Frank 'Dolly' Dillon, whose nick-name captures something of the inadequacy of a man who is forever failing to assert himself in the male world. Thompson gives Dolly, who is very evidently responsible for his own failures, free rein to rant against the women in his life, creating with cumulative force the image of a mind possessed by hatred. As the novel progressively distances the reader from his self-pitying, self-justifying voice, it becomes clear that to Dolly every woman is 'a hell of a woman', an emasculating tramp he can blame for his troubles in the world. So, for example, when he hits his wife, he adopts what to him is a reassuring manner: 'I leaned against the door, laughing...I hadn't really hurt her, you know. Why hell, if I'd wanted to give her a full hook I'd taken her head off'. After she throws him out, Dolly begins to tell us about how he got married to Joyce: 'No, now wait a minute! I think I'm getting this thing all fouled up. I believe it was Doris who acted that way, the gal I was married to before Joyce. Yeah, it must have been Doris - or was it Ellen? Well, it doesn't make much difference; they were all alike. They all turned out the same way.' It is characteristic of Thompson's darker novels that, towards the end, almost every view Dolly expresses has acquired ironic force. In the sections written by 'Knarf Nollid', Frank Dillon reveals still more about himself than he does in the other narrative, composing 'Through thick and thin: the true story of a man's fight against high odds and low women...' As the narrative becomes increasingly surreal, and Dolly's murders do not enable him to 'depart this scene of many tragic disappointments', he drifts on to an even more symbolic woman, 'the lovely Helene, my princess charming', at which point narrative coherence breaks down altogether:


And right at the start it made me a little uneasy; I got to wondering what was real and what wasn't: And maybe if I saw her as she really
one more bag like all the rest
was, I wouldn't be able to take it. But that was just at first...I mean she had to be
a bag in a fleabag, for Christ's sake, and I couldn't go any
beautiful and classy and all that a man desires in a woman...

One line of narrative recounts Helene's (the emasculating harpy's) castration of Dolly, another (which we take to be reality) his self-mutilation and suicide, the culmination of Dolly's self-destruction - '...and she didn't want it, all I had to give...'